Both Sides of the Illegal Immigration Argument – Where are YOU?

by Darwin on July 11, 2010

There are two sides to every story and the story of illegal immigration in the US is stacking up to be a major issue in US politics and water cooler talk as rhetoric on both sides of the debate increases.  I’ll seek to be as objective as possible and in doing so, immigrants who are in the US illegally are hereinafter referred to as “illegal immigrants” and not “undocumented workers”.  The latter is a politically correct term put forth by advocates and contradicts the fact that many are not even working (children, etc) not to mention that they are here illegally…but I’m looking at both sides seriously so bear with me.  Let’s start by looking at why the immigration issue may be overblown given the benefits and unintended consequences of a change in direction:

Arguments Against Vilifying Illegal Immigration

  • Net Benefit to all Americans – Low costs and outsourcing of work that our prior generations did themselves is rampant amongst this generation of Americans.  More than any prior generation, we pay people to mow our lawns, clean our houses, we eat out a lot more, and in general, we like things on the cheap so we can have more of it.  This is the American way.  My father and his father and those before them mowed their own lawns (me too), but these days, most of my friends and family outsource this.  Our parents didn’t order out on Friday nights like we do.  We have friends where even with mom or dad at home and not in the workforce Monday to Friday, they still use housekeepers instead of mom and dad teaming up to keep the house clean.  Without cheap labor (well below the Federal or state minimum wage and/or going market rate), we’d pay much more for everything from landscaping to fresh fruit to McMansions in the burbs (all those cheap houses and cheap loans are now resulting in Strategic Defaults).
  • Doing Jobs Americans Won’t Do – This is a common argument and while it has some merit, I don’t think it is stated properly.  There’s no such thing as a job Americans won’t do.  It should be framed more as a job Americans won’t do on a large scale at such a cheap rate.  After all, there are plenty of legal US residents cleaning out septic tanks, working in sewers, in the sanitation industry, and even doing the same jobs many illegal immigrants are currently employed in.  It’s a free market and in this current free market, the government stated unemployment rate is close to 10%, with the real number much higher.  The bottom line is that there are ample Americans to do the jobs that need to be done, but many find it beneath them to do that type of work at the going pay rate.  We all know that if you pay someone enough to do a given job, no matter how undesirable, they’ll do it (do you think little girls grow up saying they want to be a prostitute when they grow up?  No, but it pays quite well compared to their other prospects).  So, the real issue is that illegal immigrants do jobs for less money than legal residents.
  • You’d Do the same for Your Family – If you were living in a horribly depressed area in Mexico and you were all too aware of your friends and neighbors who had went north to the land of opportunity and were able to send money back home to their families and be virtual heroes in their eyes, wouldn’t you seek to do the same?  With Western Union, it’s as simple as earning money, wiring it home and being able to take care of mom, dad and the whole family unit while being able to feed and house oneself in America.  If you were in this situation, wouldn’t you do the same?  I know I would.  I do see the perspective of the struggling worker who wants to provide a better life for their family though.  But just because I’d want to do the same, it doesn’t make it right – or legal.
  • Discrimination Against Legal US Residents – As seen by the recent Arizona legislation allowing law officers to question civilians when reasonable causes presents itself and the subsequent announcement that the White House will file a lawsuit to stop the enactment of the policy, there are advocates concerned that legal residents will be subjected to harassment and detention simply for looking the way they do or speaking their native language.  While many say, “Well if there are 8 of them in a car and they’re speaking Spanish, it’s obvious they’re illegal immigrants”, I always remind to think about your own ancestors.  My grandmother only spoke French and I had friends that had an elderly relative that only spoke Italian or Greek or wherever their ancestors came from.  At no time did I ever question their legal status or think they shouldn’t be here.  America’s a melting pot after all and we all came from somewhere else over the past few generations (save for Native American Indians of course).

Arguments for Taking on Illegal Immigration

  • American Jobs Are Being Lost – While I cited the notion above that illegals aren’t necessarily doing jobs that Americans won’t do, but rather, they’re just doing them at a lower rate, it stands to reason that if employers were forced to employ American citizens, they’d have to pay the Federal or State minimum wage to Americans.  This would certainly have the immediate result of more job openings for Americans.  Indirectly though, it may result in layoffs and less jobs elsewhere as cost structures are whipsawed.  If you’re a restaurant that normally have 5 employees in the kitchen at 4 bucks an hour and now you’ve got to pay double that, the theory goes, you might try and get by with 1 or 2 fewer workers in the kitchen by changing some things around.  Maybe it makes sense to rely on productivity (equipment) to cut labor costs.  Maybe some other changes.  Bottom line is it’s not clear what the net impact would be since the equation is so complex, but there would be some winners and some losers.
  • Crime – Many people point to the increase of drug-related crime both along the border and within the US cities in border states.  Over the border, there’s an all-out war between police and drug gangs with shootouts and horrific acts of terror against law enforcement being carried out daily.  Within US cities, there are some pretty surprising kidnappings and killings all being perpetrated by illegal immigrants in the drug trade but these crimes seem to get little air-time since they are often perpetrated against other immigrants, and not US citizens.  Should suburban Americans start getting caught up in these crimes, you can bet there’d be more anti-immigration sentiment nationally.
  • Overwhelming the System – A key complaint supported by both anecdotal and economic evidence is the notion that the system is being overrun by illegal immigrants.  All kinds of public services like emergency rooms and police resources are being diverted to deal with issues related to non-Americans while they’re not paying local or federal taxes.  They may pay sales taxes on locally purchased items, but many cities are seeing their systems overwhelmed treating and caring for people who haven’t contributed to the tax coffers.  This is a continual sense of frustration and resentment that is festering.

My Take

From a pragmatic standpoint, I understand that no amount of enforcement, deterrents, walls or otherwise is going to completely put an end to the driving force to leave a lousy area and migrate to a better one, in this case, to America.  I also recognize that there would be financial consequences to having zero illegal immigrants in the country.  However, in viewing the situation in terms of right and wrong, aren’t we a country of laws?  We used to be, but our own Federal government is actually fighting states that are trying to enforce laws that aren’t being enforced by the Feds out of desperation.  It’s absurd.  Illegal immigrants are able to get driver’s licenses, attend schools on the public dime, get medical treatment and bear children who automatically become Americans.  The funny part is, for all the complaining from Mexico on Arizona’s “draconian” policy, Mexico’s immigration policy is more more rigid than that of the US, but everyone’s a hypocrite, right?  There’s no easy solution.  A few things are apparent.  People are driven by incentives.  If you incentivize people to come here they will.  Because it is so easy to find employment at a rate higher than they can find in their home countries, people always have, and always will seek to come here, even at their own peril.  If you really wanted to deter illegal immigration, you’d make it prohibitively expensive to employ illegals.  The vast majority of money we’ve spent actually trying to stop them has been a complete and utter waste.  The walls don’t work, the high-tech deals we did with Boeing and others for cameras and sensors in the deserts are a joke (issues with reliability, working in the rain, etc), and once you catch them and send them packing, they just come back again.  It’s that easy, many return 6 and 7 times until they finally make it through.  So, there’s got to be a different approach, but it’s doubtful that Congress will ever enact anything that’s actually efficient and useful – it’s not in their lexicon.  In looking at the current state of affairs, it’s evident millions of illegals are here to stay and there will always be some form of under the table employment.  The question is, do we start legalizing them through some means of qualification and fees?  Do we do a mass amnesty program?  Do we start getting more aggressive with deportations?  These are all options, but there’s the political component to consider as well.  There’s a democratic supermajority and the same legal demographic votes overwhelmingly in favor of the dems.  Do you really think there’s going to be any actions whatsoever from the Federal government on this?  That leaves it to the states.  It’s really a difficult situation that pits states against the Feds.  I have some ideas that mix the spirit of the law with pragmatism but I’m not so naive to believe I have all the answers or that there’s an easy solution that’s both fair and effective for the net outcome to the country – because there will certainly be individuals unhappy with any particular outcome.

I’m interested in your thoughts.

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